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Tracking In The Era of High Stakes State Accountability Reform: Case Studies Of Classroom Instruction In North Carolina

by Maika Watanabe - 2008

Background/Context: Considerable controversy surrounds the issue of whether high-stakes statewide accountability programs have led to more equitable educational opportunities for all students. Some researchers suggest that these programs have focused attention on improving the achievement of students of color from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Critics of accountability programs, however, raise concerns that high-stakes standardized tests have lowered the quality of instruction in inner-city schools, where students of color from lower socioeconomic backgrounds have traditionally not tested well, as these students do more out-of-context math and reading drill in preparation for the exams. A central question remains: What is the nature of curriculum and instruction for different groups of students in the new school reform context of high-stakes, statewide accountability programs, and what are the implications for equity?

Purpose of the Study: This account of classroom instruction delves into the instructional opportunities afforded students across different academic tracks under North Carolina’s accountability program. The author focuses on the nature of classroom instruction for students in the “regular” classes, which are disproportionately populated by students of color from low socioeconomic backgrounds, with that of their peers in “academically gifted” classes and considers the implications for equity in this new policy context. While previous tracking literature suggests that teacher expectations of students, material available to students and skills emphasized in instruction differ across tracks, the research community has conducted little empirical research to support or refute claims on differential learning opportunities for different groups of students in the new context of high-stakes statewide accountability programs.

Research Design: This research used an ethnographic case study approach with theoretical sampling to select participants.

Data Collection/Analysis: This research was based on the following data: 1) 68 hours of classroom observations in two focal language arts teachers’ classrooms, 2) six interviews with each of the two focal teachers, 3) student work from two focal teachers’ classrooms and 4) interviews with eleven other teachers teaching at other schools.

Conclusions/Recommendations: The analysis reveals five key differences in instruction across tracks that favored students in the “academically gifted” classes. The article discusses the extent to which the high-stakes accountability policies influenced teachers to make bifurcated curricular decisions for their students across tracks. The author argues that despite calls to close the achievement gap through high-stakes accountability programs, the gap will persist unless policymakers and educators consider ways in which school organization can perpetuate or equalize instructional opportunities for students.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 110 Number 3, 2008, p. 489-534
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14612, Date Accessed: 1/25/2020 2:59:58 AM

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About the Author
  • Maika Watanabe
    San Francisco State University
    E-mail Author
    MAIKA WATANABE is Assistant Professor in the Department of Secondary Education at San Francisco State University. Broadly speaking, her teaching and research interests focus on the sociology of education, urban school reform with a focus on equity, and educational policy. Two forthcoming publications include: “Displaced teacher and state priorities in a high-stakes accountability context” in Educational Policy, and “Lessons from a teacher inquiry group about tracking: Perceived student choice in course-taking and its implications for detracking reform” in Teachers College Record.
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